Skimo and Trail Running

For many trail runners the passion for being in the mountains doesn’t end when seasons change. There are plenty of runners who, because of geographic location, can run trails all winter. The trails may not be the beloved high-country singletrack, but they are trails nonetheless. Some trail runners, a less hardy variety, resort to hours of training on treadmills or indoor tracks. For those who live in the high mountains, snowshoes and skis, both downhill and Nordic, replace running shoes, which gives the trail runner a means to visit the familiar paths of summer running.

Where I live in Idaho, the winters are volatile, some come with deep snow and frigid temps, while others are mild and relatively dry. Over the years, I have spent winters skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice climbing and sometimes trail running. As I have become more passionate about trail running, I looked for a winter sport that more closely mimicked my summertime bipedal recreation. I found ski-mountaineering racing. Well, actually, it found me, but that’s another story.

Regular ski mountaineering, much better known than its racing counterpart, involves climbing snow-covered mountains and skiing back down. It does not require any specific equipment, other than a pair of skis, and is something that comes quite naturally. Case in point, put any typical kid in a park with a snow-covered hill, hand them something to slide on, skis or a sled, and they will spend hours walking up and sliding down. Ski mountaineering takes that same concept and moves it into the same mountains where many of us enjoy trail running. As one gets more involved or vested in the sport, the gear evolves to make travel more efficient.

US Skimo National Championship course

The 2012 US Skimo National Championship course.

Ski-mountaineering racing takes ski mountaineering to a different level. I would compare it to trail running versus trail racing. A typical ski-mountaineering race involves several ascents and descents, multiple transitions from hiking to skiing, and in a nutshell are a ton of fun. In the US, most of the races are held at or near ski areas, where course conditions can be slightly more controlled. In an effort to introduce trail runners to the fun that is ski-mountaineering racing, I am going to explain in more depth the gear, training and race prep, and where to go for more information about Skimo racing and races.

Kilian Jornet - Mens Sprint Race 2011 Skimo World Championships

Kilian Jornet in the 2011 Skimo World Championships Men’s Sprint Race. Photo: Luke Nelson

Before delving into the details of Skimo it is important to note the amount of crossover that occurs between ski-mountaineering racing and trail/mountain running. The best example of this crossover is Kilian Jornet. He is the current World Ski Mountaineering Champion and has been for several years. He is a dominant force whenever he toes the line in a skimo race, very much like he is when he toes the line in an ultra or any other trail race. Other top Euro crossovers include: Urban Zemmer, world record holder in the Vertical Kilometer, Manfred Reichegger, who has a Wikipedia page listing more than 50 podium finishes in ski mountaineering and sky running; the young and talented Salomon runner Philipp Reiter is great young mountain runner and ski mountaineer with many top ten finishes internationally; and a whole host of other incredible mountain athletes. The support is as equally well represented on the ladies’ side with the likes of Mireia Miro, Laetitia Roux, and Maude Mathys, the top three ranked females in the world are also top level trail runners. I would dare say that nearly all of the top ski-mountaineering racers in Europe also tend to be top sky runners as well.

In the US there has recently been interest expressed by a handful of top mountain runners including Mike Foote and Max King. We have yet to see them toe the line, but I don’t doubt we will see them in the near future. Nikki Kimball has been seen at many ski-mountaineering races in the last couple of years and is becoming quite the competitor, as well. It would be a travesty to not mention the Dorais brothers, both have impressive running resumes to go along with their top skimo finishes. On the ladies’ side, Stevie Kremer is crushing nearly every trail race she enters and finished many times on the podium for skimo last season. Sari Anderson, Jari Kirkland and Nina Silitch, all US ski mountaineering team members compete just as well on snow as they do singletrack. While ski mountaineering seems to be going through a coming-of-age time in the US, I think we will continue to see more crossover between the two sports as they do compliment each other so well.

Equipment

As with most sports, trail running included, the equipment used during racing tends to be the lightest and most advanced available. Skimo racing is no exception. The equipment has evolved over the last several years to be very light and utilitarian. It has progressed to the point that the International Ski Mountaineering Federation established rules about the equipment and other mandatory gear. The ISMF regs require that skis be at least 160cm and combined with bindings must weigh at least 750 grams (1,500 per pair) for men and 700 grams (1,400 per pair) for women and junior racers. The boots also have a minimum weight of 500 grams (1,000 per pair) for the men and 450 (900) for the women and junior racers. All of this equipment must be in an unaltered state from the manufacturer. It may seem silly to have minimum weights for equipment, but it is for racer safety and to put in perspective the weights of the Skimo skis/boots/bindings is 1,250 grams per foot or 2.75 pounds, for those metrically disadvantaged folks, which compares to about 340 grams or .75 pounds for a trail shoe. If comparing the boots alone, they tend to be about 150 grams heavier than a trail shoe, which is only about 5 ounces difference. The binding for Skimo racing is designed to lock the heel down for descending and allow it to be free while ascending. The motion for ascending is very similar to running, so similar in fact that in Europe it is commonly referred to as ski running.

US Team skis - 2011 Ski Mountaineering World Championships

The US Team skis as the 2011 Ski Mountaineering World Championships. Photo: Luke Nelson

Another critical part of the gear for Skimo racing is the climbing skin. The skins attach to the bottom of the ski for ascending. They are made with a long fiber that is laid unidirectionally on one side and a sticky “glue” on the other. The glue sticks to the base of the ski, and the fibers are in contact with the snow. Because of the unidirectional fibers, the skin slides forward with minimal resistance and then grabs when weighted allowing the skier to slide uphill. Once at the top, the skin is removed, heel of the boot locked into place and the racer can then ski down.

The final portion of Skimo gear is the mandatory equipment. This list of gear varies some from race to race, but always includes a helmet, a backpack that can hold skis, an avalanche transceiver, a probe, a shovel, and a wind layer. Additional gear that may be required could include a climbing harness, crampons, additional warm layers, and a Via-Ferrata kit, this gear would be required depending on course conditions or how technical the course is.

Training

Training for ski-mountaineering racing is very similar to training for mountain running. Most racers spend quite a lot of time trail running in the summer and then transition to ski mountaineering once snow covers the trails. It is becoming popular to mix in roller skiing a couple of days a week as the racing season approaches, but when there might not be enough snow to ski. Personally, I mount a pair of classic roller skis with a tech binding so I can start training in my race boots quite some time before the snow flies.

Luke Nelson Men's Individual Race - 2011 Skimo World Championships

Luke Nelson during Men’s Individual Race at the 2011 Skimo World Championships. Photo: Chris Kroger

There are lots of theories on how to train for ski-mountaineering racing, just like there are for trail running. Generally, it is good idea to include tempo workouts, intervals, hill repeats, long aerobic workouts and, of course, skiing powder into the mix. For me, a typical week would go something like this: Monday – tempo, Tuesday – easy recovery, Wednesday – intervals (or hill repeats), Thursdays – easy recovery, Fridays – longer threshold workouts, Saturdays – long aerobic, Sundays – rest day. The previous is just a template, but it seems to work well for me both for Skimo and trail running.

Race Prep

Getting ready for a Skimo race takes more than just getting the gear and training. There is quite a lot of technique involved, that if practiced can make you much more competitive on race day. One of the most important technical aspects of Skimo racing is the transition. I mentioned before that you will transition multiple times during a race. Sometimes from skiing to skinning, others the reverse. You will also have to transition from skiing or skinning to skis on pack, boot-packing mode, at least once during a race. If you are willing to spend a little bit of time mastering these transitions before race day, you will be able to quickly move yourself up the ranks. Uphill-skinning technique is another area that if you spend some time working on, you will find yourself moving much faster with less effort. Included in uphill skinning is the dreaded kick turn. Interestingly, in the US we tend to have less of these in our races because many lack the technique to move through them quickly, including course setters. In Europe, on the other hand, you may find yourself doing kick turns until the cows come home. There are lots of good resources on the web, including video tutorials that can help you improve your technique.

Start of 2012 US Ski Mountaineering Championships

Start of 2012 US Ski Mountaineering Championships. Photo: Tanae Nelson

Resources

Okay, now that you’ve read up to this point and you are just chomping at the bit to get out and start training for your first Skimo race, where do you look for info? The first place to look is the United States Ski Mountaineering Association (USSMA) website, USSMA.org. There you can find video tutorials on technique, a full schedule of all the US races, gear reviews and suggestions, and many other helpful links. Skitrack.com is another very useful site, put together by a member of the Canadian national team that has things like gear-weight comparisons, trip reports and a schedule of all things racing north of the border. Internationally, the International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) website can be very helpful, ISMF-ski.org. That is the place to go for an international, including World Cup and World Championships, schedule, as well as more info on gear, technique, anti-doping, and much more. If those sites don’t answer all of your questions you can always fire up the Google machine and the answers will be just a few keystrokes away.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have you ever tried ski mountaineering? If so, what’d you think?
  • If you’ve never tried skimo, do you think that you will?
  • What do you think of the complimentary nature and crossover between trail running and ski mountaineering?
Luke Nelson

spent his childhood wandering the mountains. These days, his time in the wild is spent running. Not wanting to be confined by the rules of racing, he prefers meandering lesser-known routes and rowdy mountain linkups as a way to stay connected to nature. Being connected with the outdoors on a daily basis has inspired him to be an activist and to speak up for the planet. He proudly works with Patagonia, Gu Energy Labs, Zeal Optics, Jaybird, La Sportiva, and Kahtoola as a professional athlete. He strives to maximize each hour by balancing his time as an activist, physician assistant, race director, husband and father. Join his adventures on Instagram.

There are 42 comments

  1. Jon

    Darn New England and its unpredictable snow. Two years ago my wife and I ditched our trail runners for two months of the most amazing nordic backcountry ski conditions we have ever seen. I love trail running but I would easily hang up my shoes for some winter some ski mountaineering!

  2. Jamie

    As a former XC skier turned trail runner/tele skier, this is definitely intriguing (though it looks expensive).

    Is there any prohibition against free-heeling it on the downhills?

  3. Danni

    It should also be noted that most of these races have a "rec" or "enduro" division which is a great way to race without having to line up with people in skin suits with little race skis. You will see people with tele skis, split boards, fat skis and regular ski clothes out there as well, having just as much fun and getting a great workout. You do not have to be elite or wear spandex (or buy those silly teeny skis that are impossible to ski downhill on).

  4. Le Manchot

    Being a competitive Nordic skier and ultra trail runner in an area that has both excellent Nordic skiing and ski mountaineering (Sun Valley), I have given SkiMo a try. I find SkiMo, although very challenging from a cardio perspective, to be quite a bit different from pacing and "rhythm" perspectives. Given this, SkiMo is very much a great training option for ultra trail runners particularly as it relates to developing steep hill climbing ability and associated LT pacing/VO2 max development. Of course, then there is the exhilaration and fun-factor of the downs.

    The experience, for me, is much more aligned with mountaineering than trail running and Killian has indicated the same. He is oft quoted as saying he is much more of a mountaineer than he is a trail runner.

  5. Doug K

    I like going uphill on skis but can't come down again, have to leave the skins on, otherwise there's wreckage at every turn. So no racing for me, just backcountry skiing very slowly and skate skiing on easy trails..

  6. Nick Goodall

    Never actually heard of this sport until now, but it makes sense that it exists! I can already see myself getting hooked if I tried, do you find yourself wanting to go back for more after each race? Unfortunately in the middle of the UK these things aren't exactly possible, but I may have to try something out in a snowier part of the world!

    Also, would it be possible to have detailed info on the length of each part of the race etc?

  7. Clark

    Great article! To answer a few questions:

    Cost: top of the line gear for this sport will resemble the cost to take up mountain bike racing. Ergo, the La Sportiva carbon fiber boots that were the rage last year ran $3000. Yes, you read that right. I would estimate Kilian's complete race rig, if purchased straight up on the retail market, is well north of $5000.

    Training: Uphill access at North American ski resorts is currently a mixed bag – some allow, some not so much (European resorts have historically been more friendly to this). Here in CO, more and more resorts have started allowing uphill traffic, although not all. You will have to contact your local resort and/or review their policies online to know.

    I've been backcountry skiing since the late 80's and have already dropped thousands into gear over time, and don't really have any more to spare for a dedicated race rig (OK, and it would cut into my ski vacations budget). The cost and inconsistent training access is what has kept me out of the skimo circuit, but if I won lotto…

  8. Clark

    Also, there are no shortage of YouTube clips available. I'm not even going to try to figure out how to post links via my phone, but I watched several World Championship clips of Kilian et al last winter, exciting to me as I was in the Italian Alps near where many of the races have taken place. While most of the NA races are held at resorts, it appears to be a little more diversified in the Alps, sometimes on pretty extreme looking terrain. Exciting indeed.

  9. solarweasel

    $5000, yikes!

    I nordic/skate ski plenty during the winter, but have always been intrigued by skimo. Having none of the prerequisite equipment, what should I expect to be prepared to spend for skis/bindings/boots/beacon/shovel/probe/apparel?

  10. Clark

    Solar – hard to say exactly, but I'd estimate $2K minimum for "quality" (but not carbon fiber) gear.

    I'd estimate a full on skimo "kit" to run 5-10 times what you might expect to pay for a full on ultra trail kit. Example: my Hardrock kit this summer was probably $500-600, and I spared no expense (best shoes I could find, etc…). As stated above, a "spare no expense" kit for skimo could easily top $5K.

    Heck, I'm looking at a new pair of general use (not race) rando boots for Xmas, the models worth anything run $600-1000. Running truly is one of the easiest sports on the wallet.

  11. Luke

    Nick- I recently heard of a race being announced in Scotland, getting closer right? As far as the length of the races it varies quite a lot between each race. There are races as short as 160 m that are held in a sprint format all the way up to multi-day 3000m+ per day races, like Pierra Menta. Checking out the ISMF website would be a good place to look for more info on races.

    Jeff- the best way to train for Skimo is to get out and do it, whether at a resort or in the backcountry. I spend about 30% of my training time running, and the rest on skis. I am not sure the specifics about uphill travel at Brundage, but my experience with smaller Idaho resorts is that if you check with Patrol, ask about a safe uphill route and generally be nice, you won't have any problems. The USSMA has a tab on the top of their website that will link you to known uphill policies at resorts in North America.

    Clark/solarweasel- the gear can be very pricey for the highest end race gear, but for a much more reasonable price mid level or entry level race gear can be purchased. New an entry level setup would likely be less than $2000. Also there are some great websites out there that host Skimo race gear classifieds. Skintrack.com is one of them. Checking those regularly could lead to a lightly used race setup for less than $1000. The price may seem like a lot but it wouldn't be that much more than any other performance alpine ski setup and it is a whole lot more versatile.

    Happy skinning!

    1. Le Manchot

      As far as equipment at reasonable price points, a good way to find great gear cheap is to network into the local SkiMo group (or the speedy athletic AT crowd) and make a deal on cast-offs. There are a good number of spendy participants who update or totally overhaul their gear every year and send their old stuff on. My wife bought a full top-line carbon set-up for $1500 (including boots) in March of last year. Also, look for used superlight AT gear as it will work well, particularly for beginners. Always keep in mind however- weight matters, a lot!

  12. Clark

    Luke – thanks for the heads up on Skintrack.com, $1000 is much more palatable. Of course, I could be rockin a new pair of Vulcans for that, choices, choices. I wish that was a money tree out in the front yard ;)

  13. mtnrunner2

    Nearly entered a skimo race in Vail but didn't have a beacon and have a crazy-heavy AT setup (Marker). Seems like a great winter alternative to mountain running.

  14. Mike Hinterberg

    Good stuff everyone. The biggest difference btwn that and trail running is (still) the money factor, unfortunately, and then access. For training, even at the minimum cost, a mt. bike or road bike might be a better x-training option for many, since you can use it out your front door for much of the year. And for racing, trail racing still seems more egalitarian because of the lower entry cost.

    But of course we all make decisions on our leisure budget, and it's a fine option if you can get out to use it. And in comparison to downhill resort skiing, it can be a bargain when you skip the lift tickets — not to mention getting a good workout in before noon rather than waiting in lines and sitting in chair lifts all day!

    I have a heavy BC setup that is far from raceworthy, but for sheer fun, I'm digging the uphill in addition to the downhill. As Clark mentioned, CO resorts have seemingly gotten more friendly to uphill use, despite increased popularity (and lift ticket costs) — a great way to enjoy "our" National Forests and practice more safely before venturing deeper into the backcountry. I'm intrigued by some of the longer 12/24 hour races that seem like a fun way to do laps and not really worry about time. See you guys out in the snow!

  15. Mike Hinterberg

    "One of the most important technical aspects of Skimo racing is the transition. I mentioned before that you will transition multiple times during a race. Sometimes from skiing to skinning, others the reverse. You will also have to transition from skiing or skinning to skis on pack, boot-packing mode, at least once during a race. If you are willing to spend a little bit of time mastering these transitions before race day, you will be able to quickly move yourself up the ranks."

    So far, my transitions during training have been like this:

    Go inside some hut at the top

    Peel off layers of sweaty clothes

    Put on flannel shirt

    Put on down jacket

    Eat a smashed sandwich from pocket

    Drink the water I was too lazy to drink on the way up, but probably should have

    Drink a beer

    Put on outer layer

    Take off skins

    Fumble with boots and bindings

    Ski down

    This transition takes about 15-20 minutes. Is it recommended to go faster? ;)

  16. Max King

    Yup Luke, I'm hooked. I've got a touring setup but looking for a race setup. No way I can afford that on a trail running budget this year though. Do you have a rental program setup for me yet?

    And, now everyone's all scheduling these sweet "winter" trail races that conflict with the whole Skimo race calendar. What's up with that? Never enough time in the year for all the racing I want to do.

  17. Sophie

    Hello,

    I was wondering of it is possible to go uphill the slope in the US??

    Last year I was in Austria, and it is a real popular sport there. Slopes are open in the evening especially for skiers going uphill so that it is safer. In fact, during the day it is quite dangeroes.

    This is a good way to train for competitions and to stay fit in the winter.

    I am really into this sport it is such a good workout to stay fit in the winter and enjoy nature!

  18. Clark

    Thanks for that link Doug, great news! Ski resort culture is an ever-evolving thing, from snowboard acceptance (laughable now, except perhaps Alta?), to open gate policies, and now uphill travel. It's yet another step in the right direction…

  19. the other "Geof

    Great stuff Luke! Thanks for the informative breakdown. Bryon, thoughts on having a piece on snowshoe racing? I have eyed this sport for over 10+ years and this would be another option for Winter athletes. Living in Northern IL there are not many "good" skiing options. Cheers!

  20. Layne

    Great article Luke. Thanks for sharing.

    My first skimo race a few years ago was on alpine skis, alpine boots, and a heavy step-in binding. I suffered badly that first race on heavy gear but I knew I was hooked. Fast forward to this year and I'm on a real skimo race setup that I've pieced together over the last couple of years–so to anyone that has any interest, sign up for a race regardless of the gear just to see what it is like. You'll probably love it! I'm a mediocre racer at both running and skimo, but the sports are both great and alot of fun for someone who likes to suffer!(Don't all trail runners?)

  21. Peter K

    NOT having light gear is NOT an excuse for not racing. Lots of others on heavy gear to battle with and lots of posers on light gear that need embarrassment. If you really are strong, you might find yourself battling with someone on light gear, in which case, it might be worth investing in lightweight gear to reach full potential. And lots of boots out there that are very competitive weight-wise and can still drive big skis. Add swap plates and inserts, and you are really only buying a pair of skis if you kindof want to get into it.

  22. Toph

    For each race there are normally multiple divisions you can participate in. There are "Race" Divisions which are a longer course both distance and vert wise. Then there are "Rec" divisions which is normally a shorter course and a great way to get entered into the sport. Some races may have a tele div or a heavy metal category if you have a touring/resort powder charging set up.

    And like any sport, you can get started with what you have and invest as much time and money as you want (and you can want it alot).

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